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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Mickelson, maybe?

BY GERRY DULAC
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Phil Mickelson, who has been busy attending to baby matters, was asked if he buys into the theory that players who come to the Masters without the burden of great expectation have an easier chance to win a green jacket.

“Well, let's see,” Mickelson said. “The winner of the last two years didn't slip in under the radar, by any means. He played pretty well.”

Like every year since he won his first green jacket in 1997, Tiger Woods has come to the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, which begins today, as the most formidable blip on every player's radar screen. And so have a couple other big boppers, Ernie Els and Davis Love III, players who, like Woods, have games tailored to the demands of Augusta National, a man-sized golf course built to stand up to today's advances in equipment.

Maybe that's why he's flying undetected on the radar. For a change, nobody is giving him much chance to stop Woods' quest to become the first player to win three consecutive green jackets. Nobody is expecting Mickelson, the world's No. 4 player, to win his first major championship - an emotional hurdle that has dogged his dazzling ability.

“There is some truth to that,” said Mickelson, 32, who has 21 PGA Tour victories. “It's easier to prepare, be ready mentally, when you don't have as many distractions, as many questions to answer, as many autographs to sign. It's easier to spend more time preparing on the range, on the putting green, without interruption. That can oftentimes lead to a player performing better.”

Mickelson, though, won't go unnoticed for long at Augusta National. He has finished third each of the past last two years.. What's more, with the 7,290-yard layout playing soggier than a kitchen sponge, Mickelson's ability to hit the ball a long way - he is third on the PGA Tour in driving distance (307.3) - becomes even more important.

Mickelson has finished in the top 10 in nine of the past 16 major championships. Over the past four years, only Woods has fared better at Augusta National than Mickelson.

“I always thought this would be the best opportunity to win a major,” Mickelson said. “I think my record is better in this championship than it is in the other majors. It's well-suited to my game in that I'm able to hit driver on all the holes.

“Here at Augusta National, it's very evident that you need to hit the ball long. Although certainly a less-than-long hitter can win here, and certainly they have contended and won here in the past, the odds are that a long hitter will win.”

The last short hitter to win the Masters was Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. Since then, though, the course has been lengthened 270 yards, and bunkers have been added to create more 300-yard carries. The bulk of the changes were made last year and another 20 yards was added to the par-4 fifth hole this year, making it 455 yards with a 315-yard carry over the fairway bunker.

That's part of the reason Love, who ranks 17th in driving distance (295.6), and Els, who has increased his average distance nearly 20 yards from last year, are considered prime threats to stop Woods' quest for a record three consecutive Masters titles. But it's more than just distance.

Love, a former PGA champion, is coming off a scintillating victory in the Players Championship. His final-round 63 was called “the best round I've ever seen” by his friend and playing partner, Fred Couples. Els took a two-week break to rest his injured wrist, but he has pronounced himself 100 percent healthy and close to the early-season form that allowed him to win four times in five starts - twice on the PGA Tour and twice in Europe.

Still, Els and any of the other 92 players in the field have to prove they can past Woods, mentally and physically. Only two other players have had chances to win three green jackets in a row - Jack Nicklaus in 1967 and Nick Faldo in 1991. But Nicklaus shot 72-79 and missed the cut and Faldo finished tied for 12th behind winner Ian Woosnam in their attempts.

If Woods accomplishes the feat, four-time Masters champion Arnold Palmer said it would rank among the great achievements in golf history.

“I put it very close to Nelson's performance,” Palmer said, referring to Byron Nelson's record of 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories. “And I don't know if there's anything I can say about golf that bests what Byron did. This would come close to matching most of the great feats in golf.”

PALMER FRETS: Despite a birdie on the final hole of his practice round, Arnold Palmer was half-wondering if he made the right decision to return to the Masters.

“It's that hard,” Palmer said, referring to the Augusta National Golf Club, which is playing very long and difficult because of three consecutive days of rain. “It's very hard. And it's long.

“But I'm going to tee it [today] because I said I would. That's the way I do things.”

Palmer paused briefly, then said, “I've made mistakes before.”

One year after playing what everyone thought was his final competitive round at Augusta National, Palmer has returned to play in his 49th consecutive Masters.

TRADITION: Will Nicholson, chairman of the competition committee, said the Masters will keep with tradition and not implement the lift-clean-and-place rule, despite heavy rains that have drenched Augusta National. Several players said their ball routinely picked up mud during the practice rounds.

Also, Nicholson said there are no plans to move up any of the tees to make the 7,290-yard course play shorter.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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